98/99 NHL Extravaganza - Eastern
By John Dinner
The East boasts only one real legitimate contender to the Stanley Cup and they are the Philadelphia Flyers. With the off-season acquisition of John Vanbiesbrouck (free agent from Florida) Philly has added what they hope to be the final ingredient in their quest to win it all. Along with power forwards Eric Lindros and John LeClair, the Flyers are geared towards another Stanley Cup run.
After the Flyers, those in the East are really a group of almosts and not-quite-ready teams.
Despite the Washington Capitals run to the finals last spring, the Caps are in no way favourites in the East. The experience they gained in their Stanley Cup run will prove to be invaluable but the Caps rely too heavily on Peter Bondra to score goals and Olaf Kolzig to keep pucks out. The Caps do boast one of the most skillful defenses in the NHL and if Richard Zednick can continue improving on his scoring touch, the Caps look to once again surprise a lot of teams.
The New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres seem to be pretty much in the same situation, but they will only go as far as their goaltenders will take them.
The Sabres will of course rely heavily on Dominik Hasek to carry them through the season and into the playoffs. Buffalo will go as far as Hasek takes them and not a game further. With the surprise element gone after last year's playoff run, look for the Sabres to make an early playoff exit.
The Devils, with a little more depth than the Sabres, will still be hard pressed to make a serious Cup run. New Jersey will not only rely on Martin Brodeur, but New Jersey's solid defensive core of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer to carry this team and make up for its lack of offense.
The Ottawa Senators seem to still be a couple years away from serious contention, but with young talents like Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson, the Sens should finally surprise some in the East with their speed and desire.
Their one weakness is much like that of division rival Montreal Canadiens goaltending. Damian Rhodes has shown flashes of brilliance but cannot perform on a consistent basis.
The Canadiens look like the Senators three or four years in the future, but they too lack the goaltending to go all the way. Pressure in the hockey-mad city could be too much for Jocelyn Thibault and Jose Theodore. The first line of Mark Recchi, Saku Koivu and Shayne Corson will have to score a ton to ease the pressure on the youngsters and their offensive production will be the Habs only chance at contending.
The Pittsburg Penguins will continue their post-Mario decline this season. The loss of Ron Francis, not only on the ice but off it as well, has seriously reduced the effectiveness of this team. With Jaromir Jagr now wearing the "C" on his jersey, he will be looked upon to provide leadership and scoring but can he do both?
Pittsburg's loss is the Carolina Hurricanes gain. With the addition of Ron Francis, the 'Canes have added a consummate professional and the most consistent scorer over the last five years. Add that to an already deep team at forward and Carolina is poised to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
The Boston Bruins are out to prove that last season was not a fluke. Going from last overall to second in their division in one year is a credit to the Boston organization, but they will be hard pressed to do it again. To do it, they will once again need career seasons from goalie Byron Dafoe and forward Jason Allison. Ray Bourque, who is entering his 20th season, will have to play Norris calibre defense and all these things probably won't happen again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had hoped their inaugural season in the East was to be more successful, but will once again come up short for the playoffs. Despite the addition of Curtis Joseph in net and the fact that they don't have to play Colorado, Detroit and Dallas on a regular basis, the Leafs just do not have the horses to win night in and night out.
The New York squads are in about the same positions this year, but they are headed in two completely different directions.
The New York Islanders have real effective young talent in Bryan Berard and Kenny Jonsson on defense and with Trevor Linden out to prove his worth, the Islanders could prove to be a very tough team this season. They will still be hard pressed to make a run at Lord Stanley's Cup.
The New York Rangers on the other hand, are getting old and older. To have any success at all, the Rangers will need Wayne Gretzky to have another one of his seasons and Brian Leetch will have to return to form. But even that is not enough. Look for the deep-pocketed owners to make a trade for someone with offensive punch to compliment Gretzky possibly Pavel Bure.
The two Florida franchises, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, will once again experience on-ice woes as these two franchises continue to try and compete at an NHL level.
The Lightning's new ownership seems eager to win, but they are still a few years away, especially when their best player is 18-year-old Vincent Lecavalier.
Florida's situation went from bad to worse when Vanbiesbrouck flew the coup in hopes of snagging the elusive Stanley Cup with the Flyers. The Panthers will rely on young talents Rob Niedermayer up front and Ed Jovanovski along the blue line.